Down The Rabbit Hole And Back: One Teen's Fall Into Homelessness

Jul 13, 2016

Malia Derden and her mother Rose outside the Institute for Human Services shelter in Iwilei.
Credit Molly Solomon

According to the latest Point in Time Count, homelessness in Hawai‘i is up 4 percent from last year, the 5th consecutive year it’s increased. That’s nearly 8,000 individual stories. HPR’s Molly Solomon has one of them.

It’s a chaotic scene at Honolulu’s largest homeless shelter. I’m at the Institute for Human Service’s Iwilei facility off Dillingham. Babies are crying and children run in the street, as families line up on the porch outside waiting for lunch.

"It's crowded and there's a lot of people here. That makes it kind of depressing," said 19-year old Malia Derden. She’s from Kalihi and used to be homeless, although she prefers the term "houseless." She’s visiting her mom, Rose, who has been at the IHS shelter for a little more than a year.

"I don't think she thought that she'd be sixty-something years old and houseless," said Malia. "It's not something you plan for."

Not something you plan for: a lesson Malia learned two years ago. When she was 17, Rose suffered a stroke.
"She has slurred speech, she can't walk without a walker, and I feel like it's done some things mentally too," Malia said as she told me how that stroke changed their lives. "I don't think I realized that just one medical disaster could really throw you off."

Credit Molly Solomon

Unable to work, Rose had to quit her job as a cashier at Marukai Market. Most months, the two of them struggled to meet the rent. "My mother was the only one working. We didn't have any family, it was just me and my mom," Malia explained. "She was the point person who was taking care of both of us. And so when she had a stroke, that security was gone."

Eventually they were evicted. Malia remembers that day, being alone at the apartment while frantically packing all their things. "My mother wasn't home, she was at church. But they told me we needed to pack everything and be out that day," she said. "And I remember trying to talk to them, but it was as if I wasn't even there."

With nowhere to go, they ended up at Lighthouse, a 24-hour emergency shelter in Waipahu. Malia, who always had a house, a place to sleep, suddenly found herself lying on a mat on the floor.

"And it happened so fast," Malia recalled. "I did not know any houseless people growing up. I knew people that lived in rooms, people that lived in their grandmother's house. But they always had a place to go. I didn't know anybody who lived in a shelter."

Unlike other shelters, you don’t have to pay to sleep at Lighthouse.  But there is a rigid set of rules you have to follow: no phones after lights out, up by 6 a.m., a curfew.

"When you live at a shelter, a lot of what you do revolves around that fact," Malia explained. "I had to plan things so I could be back in time."

And you can’t stay in the shelter during the day. Most of the time, Malia and her mom would end up at a nearby 7-11 and just wait—sometimes all day. "I would just have to spend the whole day with my mom," she said. "And we'd kind of just be wandering around until night."

During this time, Malia started to cut herself off. She stopped talking to her friends, she didn’t post on social media. She wanted to stay hidden. "I only reached out to people who I considered a resource," she told me. "I talked to the people who needed to know because I knew that they could help me and my mom. I didn't want anybody to know."

Things grew tense with her mom, as the two spent all day together for weeks. Malia, a teenager on the brink of adulthood, felt trapped. "I felt isolated in that sense. I spent so much time in the community, so much time trying to escape my mom. And then by the time we were houseless, I had to be with her," said Malia. "I was really being forced to face this, what I was afraid of. To face this reality that this is what happened to my mother, and this is the effect and what it did to our lives."

During the entire time at Lighthouse, Malia was working—sometimes two jobs. Eventually she moved in with a friend. "That was the first time I started living on my own. At 19-years old, living in a room, paying $650 a month—I was living the adult life," she said with a laugh. "I didn't think that was gonna happen."

Malia’s adult life is not all joy—her mother still lives in a homeless shelter. But Malia’s past isn’t crippling her future.

"I think it's something that I'm ready to talk about finally," she said. "I'm at a point where I can say, yeah this did happen. But this is not reality. My reality is something much better."

I recently called Malia to check in with her and see what was new since we visited her mom at the homeless shelter five months ago. She’d just gotten back from a national poetry competition in Brooklyn. She tells me now, she’s working with Kōkua Kalihi Valley through Americorps.

“My job is to be a story collector in the community,” she told me by phone. “I’m doing something I love and I just feel all around happier and more taken care of.”

Thanks to a scholarship from the program, she’s considering college next year at Kapi‘olani Community College.

Malia has also been working through her experience being houseless through verse. She reads a poem she recently wrote called, "What is a home?"